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Opinion Why Germany must not hesitate sending tanks to Ukraine — lots of them

A German Leopard 2 tank during a demonstration event held for the media by the German Bundeswehr in Munster near Hanover in 2011. (Michael Sohn/AP)

Eighty years ago, the hinge of history swung just north of Ukraine. There, the outcome of World War II in Europe was determined in the largest tank battle ever, a boiling cauldron in what was called the Kursk salient. Raging from July 5 to Aug. 23, 1943, the clash between German and Soviet forces involved what military historian John Keegan termed “tank armadas,” a total of about 6,000 tanks and 2 million troops. After this, Germany never again had the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front, where, 10 months before D-Day, attrition guaranteed Adolf Hitler’s defeat.

Today, the outcome of the first major European war since 1945 might turn on tanks, particularly German Leopard 2s. German tanks sealing the defeat of a Russian aggression: History teaches a dark sense of irony.

Every war must end, and this one will end as most do, with less than justice done. But more justice will be done if Ukraine is ascendant when the end comes. Writing in the Financial Times, Lawrence Freedman, author of “Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine,” argues that “the only way to persuade Russia that it cannot succeed in its war of conquest is for Ukraine’s armed forces to liberate much more territory. This requires a significant boost to the next offensive.” Which requires tanks.

Ukraine’s allies have been sensibly, but perhaps excessively, worried about provoking Vladimir Putin by crossing this or that “red line” that the Russian president might have drawn in his opaque mind. Since the Russian invasion began 11 months ago, however, about 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers have received training from the U.S. Army in Europe. Contingents of approximately 500 Ukrainian soldiers will soon begin training in Germany on the use of armored fighting vehicles. Other Ukrainian soldiers are heading to Fort Sill, Okla., about 5,800 miles from Kyiv, for training on the Patriot missile defense system.

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The “Oklahoma front” in this U.S.-NATO proxy war with Russia is another step in the Biden administration’s delicate incrementalism: The step warns Putin to not anticipate a ceiling on U.S. and NATO material support for Ukraine, short of direct involvement.

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And prudence does not mean erring on the side of anachronistic assessments of the Russian menace. Historian Antony Beevor in Foreign Affairs reminds us:

“After 1945, the Red Army’s achievements in winter warfare gave it a fearsome reputation in the West. It was not until the Soviet Union’s ill-planned invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 — the Warsaw Pact forces lacked maps, food supplies, and fuel — that Western analysts first began to suspect that they might have overestimated the Soviets’ warfighting abilities.”

A day after France said earlier this month that it was sending Ukraine armored vehicles that some analysts call “light tanks,” President Biden announced the dispatch to Ukraine of armored combat vehicles. He did so in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who also pledged to send such vehicles. Yet Scholz seems reluctant to provide Ukraine with Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks, of which there are an estimated 2,000 in 13 other European armies. Why hoard these when Ukrainians are eager to use a small fraction of them in the fight against Russia, the only clear and present danger confronting Europe’s militaries?

Ukraine says it needs 300 more tanks for an effective offensive. Britain is said to be planning to send a squadron of 14 Challenger 2 tanks: A spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says “battle tanks could provide a game-changing capability.” Poland, which has agreed to a $1.4 billion purchase of 116 U.S. Abrams main battle tanks, says it will send about 14 Leopard 2 tanks but will do so “as part of the building of an international coalition.” So, much depends on Germany shedding its hesitancy regarding tanks for Ukraine, which should not suffer today because Germany is haunted by what very different Germans did three generations ago, before and after Kursk.

Astonishingly, some congressional Republicans, being parsimonious where this is least virtuous, profess alarm about the cost of aid to Ukraine. In 2022, this was 0.09 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product.

Eighty years ago, the Soviet Union ground down German forces, using the U.S. lend-lease material, including 183,000 trucks received by the summer of 1943. U.S. lives were saved on the Western Front by U.S. Studebakers on the Eastern Front. Today, sustaining Ukraine’s punishment of Russia’s criminality will radically reduce the threat of future aggression from the only nation motivated by delusions to precipitate a large European war. Purchasing this reduction with the currency of tanks would be a historic bargain.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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